Some considered Sydney Haistings a doodler. She would sit in her freshman classes at Staley High School and draw in the margins of her notebook as her teachers lectured.
Sydney’s teachers feared she wasn’t paying attention; they worried that she was bored. Some asked her to stop; others demanded she do so, all in the hopes of improving her ability to learn.
But Rob Lundien discovered that Sydney is a talented artist, and doodling actually helps her process the material teachers present in class. After he shared these observations, her teachers agreed that Sydney’s doodling was perfectly acceptable in their classrooms.
Now, in her sophomore year at Staley, Sydney’s schedule includes more art classes, in which she excels. Because she is more comfortable with pencil and paper, Sydney now has the flexibility of taking tests and submitting other projects in that medium rather than via computer. As a result, her mother says she is happy and more successful in school this year, in large part because of Lundien.
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Sydney and her elder sister, Samantha, are just two of 350 students Rob Lundien is responsible for as coordinator of Staley’s counseling department. Four counselors, along with two full-time and one part-time support staff, oversee the academic and emotional needs of 1,533 students at Staley in the North Kansas City School District.
“My daughters transferred in from St. Paul’s (Episcopal Day School), which was quite a transition with just 30 students in their classes,” Jeanine Haistings said.
(Staley High School has about 400 students per class.) “Mr. Lundien and the counseling staff were there for us for the smallest of things, like getting a lunch number, to the big things like challenging the girls to stick with more demanding classes.”
Because she had come from such a small class size at a private school, Sydney had been uncomfortable expressing herself to her teachers when they had asked her to stop doodling. But she was comfortable talking with Lundien.
“Our job is to work with all school personnel and parents to remove barriers that keep students from being successful,” Lundien said. “Counselors are an integral part of the education team.”
Because of his detailed and personal attention to each of those students and their parents, Lundien was recognized in January as one of the top six high school counselors in the United States by the American School Counseling Association. His honor included a ceremony at the White House at which Michelle Obama spoke. It is the first time school counselors have ever been formally recognized at the White House, according to the counseling association.
Lundien admits he got a little teary-eyed at the ceremony.
“We love our jobs and our kids and we put in long hours, and it is just overwhelming and gratifying to be recognized for that work,” said Lundien, 43. The counselor, who is in his 20th year in education, came to Staley in 2010. The school opened in 2008.
The role of school counselor has evolved over the years, demanding more than ensuring that college-bound students are prepared for academic life after high school. A school counselor today is charged with helping all students focus on their academic needs and career awareness as well as social and personal development.
That is one reason a national movement is underway to drop “guidance” from the job title. The American School Counseling Association made a declaration to that effect at its June 2015 annual gathering. Currently House Bill 2428 is making its way through the Missouri legislature to officially change language in all state education law from “guidance counselor” to “school counselor.”
“For many students, issues are so much more severe than they once were because of the mobility of families and so few two-parent households,” said Lesa Levi, 49, who has been a school counselor for 20 years.
Today, she is one of two counselors responsible for 619 students students in grades six through eight at Platte City Middle School in Platte City. A 300 to 1 ratio of students to counselor is the recommended average for Missouri middle schools.
“Our work as school counselors is the embodiment of our school’s mission statement, which is to provide a safe and caring environment,” she said. “It is a driving force of everything we do every day.”
At the middle school level, Levi and her colleague, Amie Wheeler, find themselves focusing on the transition from elementary to middle school and preparing for transition to high school with all of the academic and social issues such changes require of young people.
At Platte City, counselors have the additional responsibility of about 30 students from military families stationed at Fort Leavenworth just across the Missouri River.
“In many ways, military families do a better job than other families moving to our area as far as bringing cumulative academic folders and researching the details of our school in advance,” Wheeler said. “But it becomes important to develop relationships and establish rapport with the students very quickly because they know they will be leaving again in a few years.”
To ease those transitions and reach students and parents on their individual levels requires creativity, patience and compassion from the counseling staff. Monthly coffees with parents, an extensive e-mail and social media outreach and student ambassadors are among the more standard efforts that keep everyone in the loop.
To ease the anxiety of fifth-graders moving into the middle school, the Platte City counseling department hosts a “What Not to Wear” fashion show, a lighthearted and highly entertaining event for parents and students that addresses wardrobe and other behaviors that are not acceptable at the middle-school level.
Click on the Platte City Middle School counseling website and you’ll see Levi, Wheeler and other staff and students lip-syncing to Taylor Swift’s “Shake It Off,” a creative tour of the building that showcases activities and an inviting atmosphere for new students and their parents.
But not all aspects of their work as school counselors are so cheerful. A social worker is on staff at Platte City to immediately engage on behalf of students with serious health and safety issues. Although a school fund helps provide for clothing and school supplies for those in need, the counselors have spent their own money to buy coats and other necessities for students.
Levi has testified in court to have children removed from their parents’ custody. A box of tissues on counselors’ desks is often the most valuable tool in their arsenal to assist children.
“Without us, their emotions are not in balance,” Levi said. “If those emotional needs are not being met, as well as their physical needs, they will not be in a position to learn.”
Five of Wafa Saad’s children have benefited from Levi’s counseling expertise. One of those kids had health issues that other students didn’t understand and, as a result, would ridicule.
“Lesa knew how to communicate her displeasure and the hurtfulness of those comments to the kids without creating a bigger ordeal of it,” Saad said. “She is a godsend and a big part of the success of all my children.”
Staley senior Terraya Carter feels the same way about Lundien, her counselor. Because of the looming financial burden, Terraya wasn’t considering going to college immediately after high school, but Lundien worked with her, researching scholarship applications that could total $30,000 if all goes well. She plans to major in criminal justice at Savannah State University in Georgia and eventually get a degree specializing in family law.
“I’m still a little afraid about going so far away from home, but Mr. Lundien has really helped me gain the confidence and encourages me to get out in the world,” said Terraya, 18.
Senior Abbi Atwell, who plans to major in international studies, said the school’s counseling department does far more than assist with changing schedules. With help from the counseling department, she was one of 30 students statewide who attended the Missouri Public Affairs Academy at Missouri State University last summer.
“It was really one of the best experiences of my life,” said Abbi, 18. “I got to meet all of these people my age with goals similar to mine and learn things that I never knew about.”
Pushing students beyond their comfort level is one thing a good high school counselor does, said Samantha Haistings. The Staley senior was struggling with a chemistry class and wanted to drop it, but Lundien helped her see the bigger picture.
“He helped arrange tutors for me and helped me learn better study skills that will really help me in college,” said Samantha, 18. “He wanted me to learn perseverance, and now I’m so glad I stuck it out.”
Samantha has been accepted at Valparaiso University in Indiana, where she plans to major in French and German and eventually teach the languages. Lundien helped her prioritize her interests for college and identify Valparaiso as a top choice.
For the Bowling family, who moved to Staley High School from Texas at the beginning of son Tristyn’s sophomore year, Lundien has recommended weekend getaways and other family activities that enhance Tristyn’s passion as a Civil War re-enactor. As a result, the Bowling family recently spent a weekend in Springfield visiting the Wilson’s Creek National Battlefield.
“He tailors his communication to wherever each student is,” said Rachel Bowling. “Anytime he talks to Tristyn at school, he follows up with me by phone or e-mail. We talk at least twice a month, which is so amazing.”
The recommended ratio of students to counselors in Missouri high schools is 250 to 1. However, the average is closer to 350 to 1, which is what the ratio is in the North Kansas City district high schools.
“Sometimes the many distractions our students encounter increase our need, so our challenge is to find the most effective path of school counseling in the face of these distractions,” Lundien said.
At Staley High School, the counseling department has an active, detailed website with information for parents and students. They strive to generate six avenues for each message, whether it be e-mails, Twitter and Facebooks posts, phone calls or traditional, printed material.
One of the communication outreaches seems simple enough — a table set up in the high school cafeteria one day a month. But the results are significant.
“Sometimes the students have just a quick question or a simple need to connect that sometimes takes less than 10 seconds,” Lundien said. “They don’t have to come to us. We’re out here for them.”
Another benefit of the counselors’ presence in the cafeteria is their ability to keep an eye on their students and see how they interact with others. School personnel at all grade levels solemnly recognize those responsibilities escalated in April 1999 with the shootings at Columbine High School in Colorado.
“Very few kids go unnoticed as a result of Columbine,” Lundien said. “Getting kids connected and feeling at home, like we’re all family — that’s the key to preventing violence.”
Yet Amie Wheeler at Platte City Middle School believes the state of Missouri is not doing enough to prevent violence against children. The lack of oversight required in the state’s homeschooling laws troubles her and other public school officials.
“There’s no accountability and no opportunity for intervention,” Wheeler said. “As the laws exist currently, there is a huge opportunity for a child to slip through the cracks.”
That’s what keeps the good school counselors up at night.
And what gets them up for work again each morning.